Nolan Anderson, Ph.D., a new Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service plant pathologist in Amarillo, didn’t set out to be a plant pathologist. But, along the way, he found it was the perfect fit for him, combining his love of pathogens and being outdoors.
Anderson, also an assistant professor in the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology, earned his bachelor’s in biotechnology at North Dakota State University, his master’s in plant pathology at Purdue University and his doctorate in plant pathology at the University of Kentucky. During much of that time, he worked as a research technician.
“I guess I kind of fell into plant pathology – as an undergraduate, I was looking for a part-time job and found work in a wheat breeding lab,” he said. “Because I was skilled in laboratory work, a pathology group needing someone to do PCR and all kinds of serological work hired me. And that was the start of my career.”
Plant pathology combines several aspects of research, and the scientists within the field have different backgrounds, such as virologists, mycologists, bacteriologists and experts in plant genetics. While plant pathology is a very diverse area of study, Anderson said it was the microbiological aspects that attracted him.
“I really like working on the pathogens themselves,” he said. “Once I got more experience in fieldwork, it melded two things I really enjoy, and that’s working on the microbes and being able to get outside and do some research in the field.”
Cropping systems in the High Plains offer pathology diversity
As he sets up his High Plains program — on the job only about six weeks — Anderson said he knows he will work on wheat pathogens or viral issues like wheat streak mosaic virus and Triticum mosaic virus. He also has a lot of experience with corn, so he will work on fusarium ear rot as well.
But he said he is excited to begin working on cotton because it is new to him. He is working with Terry Wheeler, Ph.D., AgriLife Research plant pathologist in Lubbock, to look at verticillium wilt on cotton.
“I think I operate very well when I’m learning new things,” Anderson said. “Learning about cotton, I’m very interested in how it is grown and what pathogens affect it.
“Also, growing crops in a semiarid system is another challenge where I will be learning new things,” he said. “That’s my job to not only understand how pathogens work and cause disease but to also develop management strategies that people can use on their farms.”
He said fusarium wilt in cotton is not an issue in the High Plains so far, but it is a big issue further south and the kind of thing a plant pathologist must always be on the lookout for.
“We don’t know if it will ever cause issues here, but we have to be aware of things that may come this way,” Anderson said.
Flexibility is key to meeting future demands
Anderson said as he sets up his program, he knows it will be important to have some flexibility.
“One thing I’ve learned in pathology is it takes the right environment to create problems,” he said. “There might be something you don’t see or don’t know is a problem until it happens. And, when it does happen, you must be able to address the issues appropriately. You always need to keep an eye out for problems, maybe not even new problems, but ones that pop back up after being gone for a while.”
Anderson said another thing he is learning about the High Plains region is a lot of the crop production is reliant on irrigation water. As that water declines, the cropping systems will change. Already the area is seeing more sorghum, so he will be looking at more sorghum disease issues.
Also, his predecessor, Charlie Rush, Ph.D., worked with vegetables as a way to concentrate the water into high-value crops, so Anderson said he will continue that work.
Anderson said he also plans to continue the potato work done by Rush, especially since Anderson himself got his start in plant pathology working on potatoes in North Dakota.
“I’m always open to new crops as well, not just new diseases,” Anderson said. “As the landscape changes, we have to change with it as scientists.”